Brian Williams’ evolving story..

“We”. “Our”. “in front of us”. “all four of our low-flying Chinook took fire”

Bill O’Reilly’s alleged war journalism story has been covered by David Corn who details how O’Reilly uses terms like “active war zone”, “combat situation” and “I’ve been there”.

What really chaps my hide is not that Brian Williams eventually conflated* all of his reporting in his own mind into it being the helicopter he was riding in that took a hit from a RPG. It is not the fact that eventually, at one point, O’Reilly directly conflates** his presence reporting the Argentine / GB conflict from Buenos Aires with the actual combat operations in the Falklands by saying “a war zone situation, in Argentina, in the Falklands”.

What I deduce from all the he said/ she said is that Williams was indeed flying around in a Chinook when one of them in the group got hit by RPG. This appears to have been miles away from the chopper Williams was in and they were all ordered down to the ground for related or unrelated safety issues. It also seems reasonable that perhaps the chopper Williams was in was hit by the odd AK-47 round.

O’Reilly, it seems, was in Buenos Aires and never in the Falklands, over a thousand miles away. He was probably in a street protest. Probably, there were armed authorities, either police or soldiers present at the street protest. It may or may not have been a threatening and frightening situation to each individual journalist but there is no evidence of authorities firing on civilians to any large extent.

With this understanding of the probable facts, go back and look at how Williams AND O’Reilly carefully parse their words. You can see how carefully they select the words they use to describe things, how tenderly they craft their story to generate a false impression without actually lying. They want you to come away from their reporting with a feeling that they were deep in the danger. In O’Reilly’s case, he seems mostly to deploy this for the purpose of bolstering his war-time correspondent journalism street cred, long after the primary reporting was done.

No matter.

This speaks to how the professional journalist type views the ethics and acceptable behaviors of their profession.

It is perfectly okay, even desirable, to create an entirely false image in the minds of their audiences just so long as they do not directly tell a clear falsehood. That is what their ethics hinges upon….whether it can be proved they told a lie. Creating a lie in the ear of their audience by using words that are not, strictly speaking, false? That’s perfectly okay. Williams and O’Reilly are only being criticized now because they slipped over the line and said something that was directly falsifiable on the face of their words. Not because they carefully selected superficially true statements to create a false narrative in the mind of their audiences.

This is my problem with journalism.

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*aha! gotcha.

**aha! gotcha.

I was watching the Oscars last night when Patricia Arquette busted out some equal-pay feminism in her acceptance speech.

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said, her voice intensifying. “It is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”

HECK YEAH!!!!!

I was hooting and hollering too much, I assume, because I got shushed. Apparently some other people in the room wanted to hear what else was being said or whatever.

So it was with some confusion that I saw backlash later on the Twitts about her. It seemed to be of the intersectionality sort of criticism. Also known as the Oppression Olympics. Not to make light of it but look, we all come with various attributes that confer privileges upon us in this society we inhabit. Most of us have one or two attributes that confer the opposite. Some unlucky folks have a pretty tough menu of biases slanting against them. So yeah, there seemed to be a drumbeat of Twitterage against Patricia Arquette’s immense privilege of wealth, whiteness and heteronomativity. I thought at first that this was undeserved, based on what she said from the stage…it’s the Oscars for goodness sake, of course they are all white and perfect and immensely rich.

Then today I finally happened upon her expanded backstage comments. From this account:

“The truth is: even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women,” she mused. “And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Breathtakingly tone-deaf.

Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life feeling sorry for myself. I get it. It is really, really easy to focus narrowly on that one aspect, attribute, experience, factor or misfortune that leaves the self at apparent disadvantage. And it is correspondingly easy to forget all about all the other factors and attributes that have conveyed immense privileges upon our lives.

This is not solved by the data, of course. Firstly, because we can all pick and choose which truthy stat we want to brandish. Is it equal pay? Very easy to brandish the generally accepted, broad brush stats for men versus women. And very easy to ignore that women of color are even more screwed than woman not of color. Easy to have no idea whatsoever how well minority men are paid relative to women not of color. Or what being gay confers in terms of salary.

And it is incredibly seductive to argue the anecdote. Well, Oprah! And J.Lo. And Eddie Murphy! And FFS Neil Patrick Harris is the Master of Ceremonies for goodness sake! They are sitting right there, so therefore why would anyone think of how their respective skin tones and desired life-partner would have anything to do with equal pay for women, eh?

Academic science is no different my friends. If this highly public case makes the intersectionality issue clearer to you than it has ever been, do try to turn that inwards.

We run across these examples on the blog all the time, of course. Whether we’re discussing the struggles of women in science, the Ginther report, outing yourself to search committees or thesis advisors, the Baby Boomer hegemony of NIH Grant funding, postdoctoral pay rates or the evils of PIs with too many grants, the issues are the same.

“Sure, sure, there are these other biases in careers. But what is REALLY important is that I, the speaker, haven’t experienced* any of those advantages that adhere to my classes and characteristics. And let me tell you about my specific set of life events that prove that really, I personally have been at huge disadvantage. So it is totally misplaced to talk about the general advantages of my characteristic X because the anecdote of me proves that X is much less important than this totally other thing that I happen to suffer from.”

At this point one or the other of you, DearReader, may suspect I am talking about you in particular. Naturally, I am not. This is a common theme. Very common.

It is something that I have suffered from in my life and continue to do so. I have felt immensely sorry for myself a lot over the years.

Like many of you, I can claim one or two disadvantages within a context of immense privileges when it comes to pursuing the career of academic science. Like many of you, I CANNOT HELP BUT IGNORE MY PRIVILEGES AND PITY MYSELF ABOUT MY HARDSHIPS. Like many of you, I feel compelled to speak out about perceived injustices in the world. Like many of you, some of those injustices I speak about happen to be ones that I think affect me. Like many of you, some of those injustices I speak about do not happen to affect me in any direct way.

And, like many of you and Patricia Arquette, I often speak about injustices in a way that appears to ignore the fact that other people have it a lot worse.

Social media has a way of helping us to remember that other people have it even worse. And that trying to recruit others to help you in your fights, without ever appearing** to be that concerned about their fights comes across as selfish and tone deaf.

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*of course you have, you just think that this is totally normal and average and deserved, and thus not worthy of inclusion in any discussion.

**For all I know Patricia Arquette is a huge fighter for underrepresented groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBT folks. But her comments certainly didn’t convey that.

The tldr; version of this post: